"Can you make the sandwich more playful?"
"I like it. But can the snow look a little warmer?"
"We want it to look like this, but don't copy it, just make it different enough, but keep it the same."
Ridiculous client feedback like this inspired two Irish graphic designers to create a series of posters (see above) that went viral—because it resonated with creative professionals around the world.
Among the many challenges creative services teams face, endless review approval cycles with stakeholders and clients—whether or not they're asking for "more images of groups of people having non-specific types of fun"—ranks near the top of the frustration list.
In a recent survey of 340 decision-making marketers, co-sponsored by Workfront and U.K.-based Brand Republic, only 35% say their projects go through just 3-4 number of reviews and revisions—often considered an ideal number that balances the need for customer and client input with the need for process efficiency. A healthy majority of respondents (58%) said their projects go through 5 or more rounds of review. While a lucky 7% are sailing with only 1 or 2 revision rounds, twice that number (14%) is suffering through 10 or more rounds of changes.
When review approval processes are not properly managed or reigned in, the consequences can be far-reaching:
• Projects may be late or derailed
• Creatives are forced to work long hours to make seemingly arbitrary changes, often at the very last minute
• Additional time and effort (which always translates into dollars) must be spent to reroute all the other work affected by one project with missed deadlines
• Distrust develops between creatives and clients
Part of the problem stems from an age-old battle of perception between creatives and clients. Writers, designers and marketers often think they're working for a "CREATIVE Services" team, where creativity is king and the most imaginative and beautiful ideas will always win. Meanwhile, internal and external clients often think they've hired a "Creative SERVICES" team that is there to serve their every whim. So, who works for whom, and who's is ultimately in charge of the final outcome?
In reality, the best results come when process is king—and when both the creatives and the stakeholders buy in to the same set of boundaries. Here are four tips for reducing the number of review approval rounds and consequently increasing the on-time delivery rate for all of your creative projects.
1. Start with Clear Definitions Up Front
When a project begins with clearly outlined requirements, stakeholders, milestones and more, the odds of success increase drastically. Creative services teams should never accept "I'll know what I like when I see it," and instead push for clear expectations and definitions of success before the project begins. Usually, this information comes from the marketer or project owner in a creative brief, a repeatable template that includes:
Project context (background, challenge, target audience, market)
Desired deliverables (description, summary, key messages, campaign details)
Expected accountability (deadlines, stakeholders, review rounds)
For more help on creative briefs, check out our free creative brief template.
2. Build In Three Review Rounds
While there may be additional internal checkpoints within the creative services team, the reviews that involve stakeholders and clients can often be limited to three, as outlined by Utah-based marketer Ben Fuller:
Round One: Directional Feedback
Initial comps may represent just a small sampling of the total list of deliverables, to give the client and stakeholders an idea of the concept, the look and feel, and the overall approach the creative team has outlined. There may even be several competing comps presented, so the stakeholders can select the best fit. Feedback at this stage should be focused on high-level strategy. Is the overall approach on target? Has any new information arisen that will influence the remaining pieces? Is this look and feel approved to roll out for the remaining pieces in the campaign?
Round Two: Adjustments
At this stage, every deliverable will be presented in a finished form to clients or stakeholders. Feedback should concentrate on how each piece fits the originally outlined strategy; this is not a time to question or change the vision or direction of the project as a whole, unless the client wants to double the deadlines and financial investment and start back at the beginning with a new creative brief. This is the right time for stakeholders to comment on colors, layout and text—and maybe add a banner size or two.
Round Three: Tweaks
All deliverables will once again be presented in a finalized form. Especially if the deadline is a driving factor, clients and stakeholders should limit their feedback to minor suggestions like the wording of a headline, a small color shift and the finding of errors and mistakes.
3. Enforce Consequences for Missed Review Deadlines
Creative services teams cannot be expected to hit their deadlines when internal or external clients fail to respond to review requests. All too often, a project will sit in a holding pattern until the stakeholder gets around to commenting. Even worse, many clients and stakeholders will fail to respond to the reviews where directional feedback and adjustments are discussed, and then they want to swoop in during the "tweaks" phase to change everything. If all the power in the organization is concentrated in the stakeholders' hands, there's little for the creative services team to do in this situation, except point out the consequences (missed deadlines, overtime, costly rework) and let the project owner make the call.
In the best situations, the stakeholder is involved in the process all along the way, through the early review processes, which makes massive changes at the last minute less likely. And when there's high trust and equal accountability concentrated on both sides of the conversation, creative services teams should be able to give the stakeholder a previously agreed upon review window, making it clear that all feedback arrives by the deadline will be taken into consideration, but that the process will move forward regardless.
If the process and the deadlines are allowed to rule, and all stakeholders are expected to respect previously agreed-upon boundaries, then that one rogue executive will no longer have the power to hold up a project or make arbitrary or subjective changes late in the game—which is the fastest way to demoralize a team of creatives.
4. Streamline Reviews with a Proofing Tool
When you email a proof out for review to multiple individuals, you suddenly have multiple copies of the same project floating around. You'll get duplicate feedback, potentially lose critical feedback in the email abyss, lose track of which version is the most recent, and struggle to keep track of who has responded and whose feedback you're waiting on.
A digital proofing tool solves all of these problems by allowing you to upload a single proof to one central location, where stakeholders can log in, comment and see everyone else's comments to avoid duplication. Best of all, there's an unassailable record of every comment, question and suggestion—or lack thereof—from every individual who has a stake in the project.
Having a single source of truth for project reviews can save hours of time spent chasing down approvals, consolidating feedback and dealing with contradictory suggestions. While there are many free digital proofing tools on the market, this functionality also built in to most work-management software solutions, including Workfront.
Just Agree on the Rules
It always seems like an act of magic—when a unified, strategic, effective marketing campaign is unleashed to the public. But the underlying process is far less sexy, comprised of processes, stakeholders, deadlines and those dreaded reviews. But it is possible to achieve that marketing magic with a minimum amount of pain and frustration—as long as creatives and stakeholders alike can agree to these four simple rules.
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